As I write this, we have just learned that the first COVID-19 vaccine has been approved for emergency use in the U.S. by the Food and Drug Administration. Even while the number of infections reaches an all-time high, the approval gives us a glimmer of hope that things will return to some kind of normal in the coming months. Students will be back with us in person, students and teachers will occupy our classrooms, and our hallways will be lively with the comings and goings of students between classes.
Let’s remember though that English language programs were suffering enrollment declines even before the pandemic, and it wasn’t simply the result of the negative rhetoric of the (now outgoing) administration. English language teaching has been been improving across the globe, and is begun at ever-younger ages, starting in elementary school in some countries. There is competition for English language business from other countries – including those where English is not spoken as a first language, such as Malaysia and the Philippines, where students can find programs that meet limited budgets. Synchronous online learning has taken off at low cost.
English language programs in the U.S. must compete on two levels, then: first, they must convince potential students that an in-person experience in a country where English is spoken is the best option; second, they must demonstrate that their own program is the best choice. English language programs of course compete against each other for new students, but that is not where the competition ends. Once in the U.S., students can transfer from one program to another, so programs have to ensure student retention in order to be successful. Although it may seem a long time until students are back with us in person, now is a good time to consider how your program will differentiate itself and hold onto students once once they have enrolled.
Although most of us in English language programs probably consider our industry to be education, I’m convinced that a significant part of what we do has much in common with the hospitality industry, and I think we can gain some competitive edge by adopting this perspective on our work. Think about it: many of us offer housing, transportation, an activity program, and concierge services. We create attractive spaces for our customers (students), help them navigate the local area with maps and guides, and are there to assist them, in some cases 24 hours a day. We have procedures in place to handle complaints and try to achieve customer satisfaction. So as we look ahead to having students back with us, we can consider our own experiences in hospitality environments – especially hotels and resorts – and plan how to apply the good practices we found there to our English language programs.
Were you ever delighted in one of those environments, and do you remember that experience? I was. There was the chocolate I found on the pillow when I checked into my room in one hotel. There was the happy hour with wine and good company in the late afternoon at another. I woke up on a long-haul flight feeling groggy and disoriented, and was offered a delicious and refreshing cup of ice cream.
These are small gestures and don’t cost much, but they have some or all of these features:
- They are a pleasant and unexpected surprise
- They break the usual routine
- They give customers something extra that wasn’t advertised
- They show the customer that someone has thought about them
- They demonstrate to customers that someone has taken extra trouble to make them feel happy
- They are memorable
What would create this effect in your program? A pop-up ice cream party after class? The teacher handing around treats after a particularly tricky grammar exercise? An ‘impromptu’ concert by a couple of your teachers or staff? Why not brainstorm ideas with everyone at your next in-person meeting?
These kinds of things show your students you care about them over and above the classes and advertised services.
Here are a couple of tips to help you succeed in delighting your students:
- Calendar it. Just put a ‘delight’ reminder in your calendar, to repeat every two or three weeks, just to ensure you remember to implement one of your ideas. But don’t make it routine or expected.
- Budget it. Make this a line item in your budget. And don’t be greedy with the budget – offer amounts to teachers and staff so that they can be creative in delighting students too.
3. Remember, you can treat everyone as your customer. That means teachers and staff too. So see if you can find ways to delight them, and they will want to pass on that feeling to the students.
Wishing you a holiday season filled with delights!